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The Next Level (Originally Published June 20, 2008)

I originally wrote this one in June - I received quite a bit of feedback about it. The coaches all love it, some people think it doesn't relate to dragon boat. I think it does - sometimes the tie doesn't go to you.

Many, many times I have heard, from teammates, athletes, friends, and coaches, "I/we want to move to the next level." This is natural, particularly in competitive sport. We are all here, ultimately, to measure ourselves against others. Eventually, you learn that the real goal is to use others to measure yourself against yourself.

As we improve our skills it is natural to look to the more competitive crew, the rep team, AAA versus AA. "How am I going to keep improving if I don't train with better athletes." The frustration occurs when you make known your desire to move to the next level and for whatever reason, your coach or people of influence believe you should stay where you are. Sometimes this involves crew or team situations where roster spots are set in number - in dragonboat maybe you are the 21st person on the 20 person roster.There are no absolutes in these situations. Essentially, sooner or later, every athlete is going to be measured differently by others than they see themselves. When that happens what should you do?

I really didn't learn how to to deal with this until I was 35 years old. I was into heavy martial arts training, in the dojo six times a week, competing in tournaments, the works. I had been doing Uechi Ryu karate for about 8 years, taking breaks at times for my canoe training. In 1995 and 1996 I went at it pretty hard for a couple of years without taking any time off.

Uechi Ryu is a traditional form of karate with roots dating back 5000 years to China. The Okinawans learned the form in China, bought it back to Okinawa, and then taught the marines in World War II. The Okinawans were very diligent about keeping the forms' traditional roots, and for a long time we couldn't use any protective gear and full contact, including to the head is allowed. It takes a long time to learn Uechi - think classical music versus guitar hero.

Anyway, one of the concessions the Okinawans had to make when teaching the American marines was they had to bring in levels, which were designated by belt colors. Prior to that, the Okinawans and Chinese all just wore white belts. When the marines started learning, the Okinawans found that they would lose interest very quickly without the feedback created by advancing with different color belts. Other styles have also adopted this grading system, which in my experience is pretty arbitrary between styles. I was no different. As I advanced through the ranks, I constantly was looking for the next belt. In Uechi, advancing is painfully slow, you wear a white belt (you get green stripes) for about 3 years. The day you get your green belt is a happy day.

Of course, everyone wants a black belt. In Uechi, no one can really tell you what you have to do to be ready. I knew people in Uechi who were perpetual brown belts. They will just never get their black belts. If you train every day and are immersed in the culture you would understand why. I can't really explain it. The Okinanwans take black belt grading very seriously. The test itself is very difficult and a number of people fail the black belt testing, which is considered the failure of the teacher, not the student. I can tell you when you take the test you feel a lot of pressure to pass, knowing that your teacher will be disgraced (I'm serious) in the eyes of the testing board.

As a result, the teacher (or sensei) only recommends people for testing he thinks will pass, and then works one on one for six months to prepare (a sensei can only recommend one student every six months). Every brown belt the teacher has is constantly harassing the sensei about when they will be ready to test, although because of the decorum required, it's pretty much unspoken.

And I figured it out. One day, as a brown belt who was trying to figure out how to get myself elevated from all the other brown belts, I decided that if I wanted to be a black belt I had to train like a black belt and act like a black belt. I started showing up on Sunday afternoons when the Black belts had informal workouts, and waited to be asked to join, which eventually, I was. (but not right away, I had to watch for awhile). Instead of partnering off with a brown belt or green belt in class, I would always partner with a black belt if possible, and then try to keep up. Eventually I decided that if I wanted to be a black belt I had to be better than the black belts I was training with, and that became my goal. This lasted about a year.

One day, I absolutely knew in my mind that I was better than most of the black belts in the club. It is important to note, during this whole time, I never, ever let that show. I just showed up and worked out. A Uechi dojo is not the place for bravado, trust me. That day, and I remember it well, was the day my teacher said I was ready to be tested (or rather to start the six months of training to be tested). It was good lesson for me - I wish I had learned it as a kid. If you want to be ranked over someone you have to be clearly better than that person. A lot of times the tie doesn't go to you.

Oh yeah, I passed. And then I realized how meaningless the belt colors really were - which was the whole point.

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